Tokuda: People want answers about Maui fires

A 2016 view of Lahaina on Maui. (Photo by Todd DeFeo/The DeFeo Groupe)

(The Center Square) – U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, told a House subcommittee on Thursday that Maui residents want answers and accountability regarding what happened during the fires that devastated the area last month, killing 97 residents.

“They are frustrated, they are grappling with their new reality, they are justifiably mad that this has even happened to them,” Tokuda testified to the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Hawaii Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura said in her written testimony an early morning fire on Aug. 8 appears to have been caused by downed power lines that fell during high winds.

“The fire department later determined it had been “extinguished” and left the scene in the early afternoon,” Kimura said. “At about 3 p.m., a time when all of Hawaiian Electric’s power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours, a second fire, the ‘Afternoon Fire,’ began in the same area. The cause of this Afternoon Fire that devastated Lahaina has not been determined.”

Maui County officials are suing Hawaiian Electric, saying they did not shut off the power grid on Aug. 7 despite a red flag warning from the National Weather Service. That led to downed power lines that ignited dry grass that contributed to the fires, Maui officials said.

Hawaiian Electric was aware of the warnings, Kimura told lawmakers. The wind gusts were estimated to be at 60 miles per hour but were later upgraded to 80 miles per hour. Kimura said she didn’t know when utility officials knew the winds had worsened.

Shutting down the power grids was not part of the company’s protocol, which was created in 2019, she said. The company is reexamining its protocols, she told committee members.

Tokuda and other lawmakers said they are concerned about the effects a possible government shutdown could have on Maui relief efforts. The U.S. House has until Saturday at midnight to reach an agreement.

The Biden administration released a statement Thursday saying 2,000 recovery efforts would be jeopardized if government funding doesn’t continue. That includes 12 relief efforts in Hawaii.

“There are many unanswered questions, but we must remain focused on the most important and immediate question: how we keep the help coming to Maui,” Tokuda said. “We can’t afford a government shutdown.”

— Kim Jarrett, The Center Square

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